Dangers and Difficulties of the Project Method and How to Overcome Them: II. Projects and Purposes in Teaching and in Learning


by William C. Bagley - 1921

The project method represents a synthesis of movements and tendencies in educational theory that have been gathering momentum for several years—some of them indeed for several decades. It represents an attempt to formulate these tendencies and movements in a single and unified pattern of educational procedure. As such, it already ranks as a constructive achievement of the first magnitude. It is quite within the realm of possibility that it may work a complete transformation in school life, and a correspondingly profound transformation in the attitudes, standards, and methods of thinking and of acting in the coming generations. It represents something more than a method of teaching in the narrower sense of this term. It means a new point of view toward the whole problem of education. It may mean not only the reorganization of educational materials which it already promises, but the development of materials that have not as yet been utilized in education. It may mean not only the radical changes in educational ideals and objectives which have been so influential in bringing about its development, but also the genesis and projection of new aims and new ideals. In a very real sense we are standing today at the parting of the ways. There is a deep and well-nigh universal conviction that a different world lies ahead,—a civilization that may be as different spiritually from the existing order as our civilization is different materially and economically from that of two centuries ago. And the harbingers of the new order, its patterns and its promises, are probably nearer the surface in educational theory and practice than they are in any other department of human activity.

The project method represents a synthesis of movements and tendencies in educational theory that have been gathering momentum for several years—some of them indeed for several decades. It represents an attempt to formulate these tendencies and movements in a single and unified pattern of educational procedure. As such, it already ranks as a constructive achievement of the first magnitude. It is quite within the realm of possibility that it may work a complete transformation in school life, and a correspondingly profound transformation in the attitudes, standards, and methods of thinking and of acting in the coming generations. It represents something more than a method of teaching in the narrower sense of this term. It means a new point of view toward the whole problem of education. It may mean not only the reorganization of educational materials which it already promises, but the development of materials that have not as yet been utilized in education. It may mean not only the radical changes in educational ideals and objectives which have been so influential in bringing about its development, but also the genesis and projection of new aims and new ideals. In a very real sense we are standing today at the parting of the ways. There is a deep and well-nigh universal conviction that a different world lies ahead,—a civilization that may be as different spiritually from the existing order as our civilization is different materially and economically from that of two centuries ago. And the harbingers of the new order, its patterns and its promises, are probably nearer the surface in educational theory and practice than they are in any other department of human activity.


The present topic is approached, then, in an attitude that is about as far removed from dogmatism and "cocksureness" as it could possibly be. What we have specifically to ask concerning the project method may in the near future be recognized as quite beside the question. We are bound today to judge each new proposal by the standards with which we are familiar. But the development and acceptance of other standards may easily make our judgments of absolutely no consequence.


The most significant feature of the project method is its emphasis upon the element of purpose, and especially the basic importance that it attaches to the purpose of the learner. It recognizes the dynamic effect of a strongly felt desire in releasing the energy that is essential in learning, and it aims to capitalize this factor in the interest of education. It would seek in the experience of the child for dominant purposes which may be turned to educational ends. In the realization of such purposes, it maintains, the teacher will be able to bring to the child many if not most of the skills and the information that he will need in his later life. Coming to the child and assimilated by him in this natural context, the skills and the information will be acquired with a minimum of difficulty, it is assumed, because there will be no divided effort. It is also assumed that skills and information absorbed in this natural context will be retained longer than they would be if they were acquired in and for themselves, or without reference to a dominant purpose. A third assumption is, that acquired in a matrix of application, that is, as instruments in the solution of real problems, the various items of skill and information will have a greater "transfer potency"; because they have been learned from the outset as instruments in the solution of problems rather than as abstract entities, they will be readily applied to new and somewhat different problems.


These claims are referred to as assumptions because their validity has not as yet been established by thoroughgoing experimentation. It is possible, of course, that they do not need experimental substantiation. In so far as the greater economy of this "purposeful" learning is concerned, there can be little question; the statement, indeed, is almost, if not quite, axiomatic. It is my opinion, however, that the second and the third assumptions should be experimentally tested. There is some indirect evidence that information gained primarily to solve an immediate problem is not so long retained nor so easily recalled as is information that is mastered with the intent to make its mastery permanent. I have abundant experiences of my own that confirm this conclusion. Over and over again I have "worked up" information for some specific and immediate purpose only to find it necessary to work it up again on the next occasion. In fact, the validity of the principle of "learning with intent to remember" has been fairly well established by experimental evidence. It has also found expression in common-sense maxims. Dean Pound of the Harvard Law School, for example, has been quoted as advising the law student to read each case as if all printed record of it were to be forever destroyed immediately afterward. Such learning might be identified with "purposeful" learning, but obviously the meaning here would be quite different from that which the project method implies. Psychologically, learning with the intent to master permanently comes very close to learning for its own sake.


All this does not mean that the emphasis upon children's purposes and upon immediate purposes is futile. This emphasis in any case, is clearly justified in the earlier stages of education and on occasion throughout the entire course of education. To say that such purposes have a place in education is one thing, however; to maintain, as is implied in some discussions of the project method, that all learning should take its cue from such purposes is quite another thing. And it is against the latter contention that I should advance the strong probability that information mastered for a temporary and specific purpose is not so well retained as is information gained in another way.


Let me pass now to the third assumption; namely, that the "transfer potency" of skill and information is increased by the acquisition of such skill and information in a project setting, or as instruments in the realization of an immediate purpose. There is little doubt, of course, that a clear recognition of the worth of a skill or of a principle will increase the probabilities of its application to a wide range of situations. In so far as the project gives a basis for a keen appreciation of the value of what is learned, it will certainly increase transfer potency. The element of purpose is doubtless an important factor here; and yet it is conceivable that the absorption of the learner in the immediate purpose and his desire to realize that purpose may actually blind him to the intrinsic virtues of the instruments that he finds useful toward that end, and consequently work against transfer rather than in the direction of transfer. What we know about the psychology of transfer is little enough, but such as it is, it suggests strongly the importance of lifting procedures and principles out of the matrix of their application,— out of their relationships to specific and immediate purposes,— and viewing them for a while as detached entities, taking care always that their applications to concrete problems be abundantly illustrated. Project teaching would have a very important place at both ends of the series: first, in introducing the pupil to the procedure or the principle in such a way that he would be impressed with its value, and then, after some acquaintance with it, in and for itself, bringing it back into a functional or purposive setting.


I should like to dwell a little longer on this tendency of the immediate purpose to overshadow the instruments used in its realization. The failure to recognize this tendency has, I think, been the cause of the failure of the project method generally to secure the results that formal and systematic teaching, with all of its evils and all of the wastage involved in divided attention, often succeeded in securing. Good teachers who have used the project method and testified to its virtues have often added the reservation that, as they expressed it, "You must still have some drill." Now to say that you "must still have some drill" is only another way of saying that you must take a procedure out of its purpose-context and give it a little time and attention in its own right, as an abstract entity if you please. Until further evidence is at hand, I should strongly recommend that, where geography and history and other content subjects are taught by the project method, this treatment be accompanied or followed by such systematic courses as will provide for coherent organization and for an acquaintance on the part of the pupil with facts and principles as such rather than as instruments for solving impelling problems.


And this leads to another difficulty which is not easy to straighten out. The project method, as I have suggested, lays a heavy emphasis upon the "instrumental" value of knowledge. The natural inference, indeed, from much of the project literature is that knowledge is valuable only to the extent to which it enables its possessor to solve the problems that he meets in life. Now of course, if we give the term "problem" a sufficiently elastic meaning, this is true enough; but the elasticity of meanings is confusing. The psychologist may tell us that conscious life is just one problem after another, and so make the two terms quite synonymous. But most people use the term problem in a much more restricted sense, and when they are told that the sole and only purpose of knowledge is to help people to solve their problems, they are likely to limit their conception of the function of knowledge in just the same narrow way. Unless they can see how a fact or a principle will help them out of some difficulty, they are almost certain to conclude that its value is nil.


Now to intensify the skepticism of the unthinking adult or the immature child regarding race experience is to incur a risk that ought not to be incurred unless there is a compensating gain. Continually to emphasize the instrumental values of knowledge to the exclusion of all others is to incur this risk. The prime function of education on the elementary level, and to a large extent on the secondary level, is to place the child in possession of his spiritual heritage,—the heritage of skill, knowledge, standard, and ideal which represents the gains that the race has made. Only a small fraction of this heritage is instrumental in the narrow meaning of the term. Only a small fraction of it is made up of items of skill and items of information which one deliberately uses in solving what most people call problems. We are certainly not willing to say,that the great bulk of it is consequently of no value whatsoever. And if it has not this direct instrumental value, what value has it?


I should answer this question by suggesting that knowledge or race experience furnishes an equipment for life over and above the tools or instruments that it supplies,—something that is perhaps even more fundamental than tools or instruments. It furnishes foundations, backgrounds, perspectives, points of view, attitudes, tastes, and a host of other things that determine conduct in a very real fashion, and yet through devious channels that are likely to defy analysis and to escape the scrutiny of one who is looking only for direct and visible applications.


Within the past four months some tens of thousands of people have read Mr. Wells's Outline of History. I doubt very much whether one in a hundred of these interested readers has deliberately applied his newly gained or refreshed knowledge of human history to any specific life situation; but it would be futile to deny that the book has already had a marked influence in determining points of view and mental backgrounds. If its vogue continues until a substantial proportion of thinking people have read it, no one can safely deny that it may have a profound effect upon the course of human destiny.


Now one does not ordinarily go to a book like that of Mr. Wells to solve problems or to realize immediate purposes. One doubtless has a motive for everything that one does consciously, but the motive for the same act may vary among different individuals and at different times in the same individual; and generally speaking the result is not often much affected by the specific variety of motive that happens to impel one to the act. What one does when one reads well-written history is to live vicariously, to live in imagination, some of the epoch-making experiences through which the race has lived.


It has frequently been remarked that it is difficult to teach history by the project method, or rather to devise projects through which the essential "sweep" of historical movements can be brought to the learner. This difficulty I am sure is inherent in the unique educational value of history. It is not an instrumental subject as are arithmetic, grammar, and to a large extent the sciences. Generally speaking one cannot very profitably read history backward or in segments chosen in haphazard order, any more than one can profitably read Hamlet backward or in similarly disconnected fragments.


It is because the project method with its almost exclusive emphasis upon instrumental values breaks up the continuity and organization of subject-matter that it is inadequate, I believe, for the effective treatment of those subjects, the soul and substance of which are continuity and coherent organization. History is one of these subjects, and probably the most significant from this point of view. But, as I have suggested, there is place for logical organization and systematic treatment in practically all of the content subjects.


I am of course aware of the possibility of extending the project method in theory to cover these cases. It has been suggested that the learner, after dealing with materials brought to him in a problem or project setting, will ultimately come to the point where he desires a logical, coherent, systematic treatment of these materials, and where in consequence a real project setting is provided by this large purpose. I have no doubt that such a motive will arise spontaneously in some individuals. Doubtless it can be suggested to others by clever teachers in such a way that the learners themselves will accept it as their own purpose. It may be necessary and wise thus, either to wait until children spontaneously generate these larger purposes or to manoeuvre until they are ready to accept as their own a large purpose which the teacher has projected. The question involves a fundamental tenet in the theory which lies back of the project method, and which I have not considered up to this point. It is a tenet that strikes far more deeply than any of the questions of retention, recall, or transfer to which I have referred. Indeed if this particular tenet is valid, practically all of the objections to and limitations of the project method which I have suggested become matters of very small consequence.


Stated baldly, the question at issue is this: Is it ever justifiable to impose one's own purposes upon others? It is conceded by all, I think, that the individual's purposes must be thwarted when they run counter to the welfare of others. Beyond this area of agreement, however, there is in educational theory a much disputed territory, and in this territory many of the fundamental issues raised by the project method must be fought out.


Personally I have large sympathy with the idea of freedom from the enthrallment of purposes handed down by tradition or imposed by authority. I am quite clear that one important line of progress is in the direction of such freedom. I am fairly clear, too, that another, and I trust, a parallel line of progress demands, if not common purposes, certainly a community of culture, that is, ideas, standards, ideals, and attitudes that are common to all. Between these two demands, educational theory must effect at all times a working adjustment.


I do not believe that such an adjustment needs to involve a compromise of principles. In the specific question at issue, for example, I am inclined to the belief that, if provision is made for giving children scope and opportunity to work out many of their spontaneous purposes, there can well be some measure of controlled and directed activity to take care of the types of learning which our adult judgment deems essential and which the child may not happen to hit upon independently. Until further evidence is available, I should say that it is better that he should be encouraged to accept this control as a matter of course, than that we should attempt to delude him into the belief that he is making a free choice when in reality the choice is made by someone else.


The justification of control and direction lies in the very nature of childhood itself. As John Fiske taught us forty years ago, the essential meaning of immaturity lies in the plasticity which it permits, and in the necessity that it imposes for the care and culture of the young by the adults of the species. Of the innate tendencies, none surpasses in its significance that which makes the child's mind receptive and his nerve connection plastic irrespective of his conscious purposes. The consciousness of purpose, indeed, is a late development biologically. There are many reasons for inferring that it ripens relatively late in the individual. There may be dangers of premature exercise here, as there certainly are elsewhere in the development of young children. Be that as it may, the dependence of the child upon the adult for control and guidance is clear and indisputable. This is the basis from which we can safely work. We can ask ourselves when and to what extent the child's own purposes shall begin to replace the guidance and control which nature has so providentially necessitated. This point of view, I think, shifts the emphasis in educational theory. Instead of decrying adult control as a necessary evil, we see it now as an essential virtue through the agency of which, and primarily through the agency of which, human progress has been made possible. The great educational problem is to use it wisely but not to abuse it; to recognize where it should stop but not to abandon it entirely even in theory.


I have tried to point out what in my opinion are some of the theoretical dangers and difficulties of the project method. I have taken the emphasis of the learner's purposes as the most significant characteristic of the project method. I have pointed out that, to teach subject-matter exclusively in the context of immediate purposes may tend to reduce the revival value and the transfer value of what is learned; but that these dangers, if they exist, can doubtless be counteracted by complementing project teaching with an organized and systematic treatment of the same materials. A second danger to which I have referred is that the almost exclusive emphasis upon the instrumental values of knowledge which this method encourages tends to blind one to other values that are equally significant and, perhaps, in the general education of the elementary and secondary school, much more important. This would seem to speak rather strongly, against a wide use of the project method in the present stage of its development in connection with certain subjects such as history and literature in which the instrumental values are vastly less important than are the interpretive and inspirational values. A third danger which I have mentioned is that an over-emphasis of purpose may blind us to the fact that nature has provided, and apparently quite wisely, for learning of a non-purposive sort; and that such over-emphasis may also lead to the assumption that the imposition of adult purposes is always an evil, when, as a matter of fact, its very possibility has been one of the most important factors in human evolution.


My treatment of this topic has been frankly theoretical. I cannot close without reiterating my conviction that the development of the project method constitutes an educational achievement of the very first magnitude. It is not at all unlikely that many if not most of the dangers which I have pointed out can either be shown not to be dangers at all, or at any rate can be counteracted by modifications which will not take from the method any of its acknowledged virtues. I have aimed at what seems to me to be the central doctrine which the method involves. Against any proposal that promises to revolutionize both education and life so completely as does the reorganization of education on a project basis every possible argument that may suggest its points of weakness ought to be brought into the open, not to destroy the proposal, nor to disparage its virtues, nor to discourage those who are committed to its extension, but simply and solely to test its validity from every possible direction before it has become crystallized in a fixed and permanent form.



Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 22 Number 4, 1921, p. 288-296
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 3983, Date Accessed: 11/29/2021 4:41:44 PM

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